The Witnesses

Syrian activists took the YouTube videos that dragged America to the brink of war -- and then paid with their lives.


CAIRO, Egypt — They may just be the first YouTube videos to start a war.

The images flooded in only hours after the Aug. 21 chemical attack in Damascus’s eastern suburbs. And they soon reached the very highest rungs of the U.S. government: "As a father, I can’t get the image out of my head of a man who held up his dead child, wailing while chaos swirled around him," said Secretary of State John Kerry in his impassioned Aug. 26 speech. "[T]he images of entire families dead in their beds without a drop of blood or even a visible wound; bodies contorting in spasms; human suffering that we can never ignore or forget."

Social media also forms a key part of the British intelligence assessment about the attack. As a result of the videos, "there is little serious dispute that chemical attacks causing mass casualties … took place" in Damascus, according to an open letter from the chairman of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee to Prime Minister David Cameron.

The local activists who filmed these videos, then, have accomplished what years of hectoring from the official Syrian opposition have been unable to do — bring the world to the brink of military intervention against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The conflict’s steadily mounting death toll — now at over 100,000, and climbing rapidly — failed to spur international action; the images of dead children lined up in neat rows following the attack, however, appeared to have served as a gut punch to the world’s conscience. And the sense of outrage may be so great that it will propel the United States into war.

The amateur Syrian videographers’ accomplishment, however, came at a high cost.

Activist Razan Zaitouneh, who runs the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, tells FP that her team sped to the Damascus suburb of Zamalka immediately after a chemical weapons attack was reported there on Aug. 21. The media staff of Zamalka’s local coordination committee, which is responsible for filming videos in the area and uploading them to the world, also sped to the scene. According to Zaitouneh, all but one of them paid with their lives.

"The chemical attacks, on the first day of the massacre, claimed the lives of many media activists in Zamalka coordination because they inhaled the chemical toxic gases," Murad Abu Bilal, the sole survivor, told Zaitouneh in an interview uploaded to — what else — YouTube. "[T]hey went out to shoot and collect information about the chemical attack, but none of them came back."

The videos quickly removed any doubt for U.S. intelligence analysts that chemical weapons were used in the Aug. 21 attack. They showed children with constricted pupils who were twitching and having trouble breathing — classic signs of exposure to sarin gas. They also showed the remnants of the rockets reportedly used to deliver the gas, which were largely intact. If they had delivered conventional explosive munitions, more of the rocket would have been destroyed on impact.

This isn’t the first time that activists have tried to harness the power of YouTube to advance their cause — but it is arguably the most successful. During the September 2009 war in Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces employed videographers in an effort to prove that it attacked solely Hamas positions, not defenseless mosques or schools. The Israeli military returned to the strategy in May 2010 after its deadly raid on a flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip, posting a wave of videos meant to prove its soldiers had acted responsibly.

Not every viral video has supported the opposition’s cause, of course. One of the most notorious videos of the war showed a rebel who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Sakkar eating the lung of a pro-Assad fighter. "My message to the world is if the bloodshed in Syria doesn’t stop, all of Syria will become like Abu Sakkar," he said, by way of explanation.

A number of professional distribution networks have arisen within the Syrian activist community, however, to make sure that the opposition gets its message out. Rami Jarrah, the founder of the ANA New Media Association, is a longtime media activist — and he marvels at how the networks have evolved since the early days of the uprising.

"In the beginning stages, it was really based on individuals … these media outlets, most of them weren’t really offices, they’re mainly just guys with laptops," he said.

Today, many opposition-controlled villages have media offices with satellite connections to the Internet — and software for secure uploading. They also have help from overseas.

The existence of activists outside the country, Jarrah said, was one reason why the videos of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack were released so quickly. The media teams on the ground would upload the videos to a Dropbox account belonging to activists in neighboring countries, who would then translate them and upload them onto YouTube for all to see.

Jarrah’s organization runs a radio broadcast that airs in the governorates of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, and will launch in Damascus within a matter of weeks. It also translates important videos that aim to challenge what the organization views as incorrect Western narratives about the Syrian conflict. Jarrah gives the example of a video showing a Free Syrian Army unit in the governorate of Latakia, which held a dialogue with Alawite residents of the area to quell their fears about the rebels’ presence. "To an international audience that hears there’s sectarian violence all over the place, and the FSA is just killing people, that video makes a point," Jarrah says.

Many of the videos that have made an impact in Washington, however, don’t contain a political message, but instead contain clues about how the military conflict is evolving. Jeff White, who worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency for 34 years and is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, describes such videos as "a crucial source" of information. "It shows us how [the rebels] fight, in ways unlike other sources of reporting," he says.

White says that the videos first became a source of information during the war in Libya, but only became a key source of information for him when the bloodshed in Syria escalated. "I can’t think of another case like this…. We used to have to send agents or reconnaissance forces to obtain this kind of data," he says.

The United States government has long recognized the potential of social media as an intelligence tool. Washington has invested heavily in tools to protect those who disseminate sensitive information — and to mine that social data once it’s distributed. The CIA’s investment arm has supported a company that trawls through thousands of blogs and Twitter accounts to better understand the connections between people, organizations, and events — and then predict what will happen next. The State Department, meanwhile, has poured tens of millions of dollars into developing systems such as the anonymous browsing software Tor, or the anti-blocking program Psiphon, that today are helping activists in Syria get online anonymously.

There are downsides, to be sure, to this type of reporting. Analysts of the Aug. 21 attack on the eastern Damascus suburbs noted that most of the victims shown in the videos were women and children — a likely attempt by those filming the event to provoke greater public sympathy. White argues that the information from the videos must be put in the context of other reporting of the conflict to gain a fuller understanding of events on the ground.

But for better or worse, this type of reporting appears to be here to stay. And if the U.S. military moves aggressively against Assad, part of the reason will be the brave souls who ran toward a chemical weapons attack when everyone else was running away.